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I’ve recently misplaced a pair of decent Klipsch earphones. As I’m partial to using over-ear headphones most of the time, I haven’t managed to justify a replacement yet. As a stop-gap, I’ve been reduced to relying on one of the seven or so pairs of Apple EarPods I have lying around the house whenever I want to listen to music at the gym.
The logic here is that Apple’s own free earphones have a reputation being utter garbage, so if I trash them at the gym who cares — right? I’ve basically accrued enough pairs for virtually every bag I own anyway!
But maybe I’m being too harsh on the pearly white fashion accessories?
EarPods Have Their Uses
Perhaps the best thing about Apple’s EarPods is that they’re free with any mobile device purchased — that includes all models of iPhone, iPad, and the entire iPod range. The revised the design was introduced in 2012, so if you’ve changed your iPhone a few times since then, bought a new iPad, and received an iPod for Christmas, you probably have a few pairs floating around in a drawer by now.
They come in a hard case for safe storage; are equipped with a remote for volume, phone calls, and Siri; and the 3.5mm stereo jack is thin enough to comfortably fit pretty much any case you can find. Furthermore, they’re covered by Apple’s basic warranty and AppleCare. If anything, they’re useful in a pinch, which is exactly why I found myself using them.
I hadn’t used a pair of Apple earphones since my iPhone 4 days, when Apple was using some of the nastiest sounding drivers known to man. Fortunately, the post-2012 versions are noticeably better than they used to be. The treble is surprisingly punchy, there’s an unexpected richness to the bass that doesn’t overpower the sound, and the overall sound produced compared to previous bundled accessories is pretty good.
However, the mid-range is weak — a problem that’s exacerbated by a design that doesn’t employ any passive sound isolation. There’s no silicon earbuds to create a tight seal between your ear and the bud, which means the midrange is largely washed out by whatever’s happening around you. As a result, they’re also incredibly leaky — not ideal for quiet environments, or listening to loud music in public.
Despite the somewhat flawed design — and this is subjective, not everyone likes to feel “plugged in” — the response from Apple’s EarPods is surprisingly flat. They don’t fall into bass-heavy Beats by Dre territory, and they hold up well when listening to a variety of musical styles. Apple doesn’t design its products for any one target market, so it makes sense that their earphones should be adaptable.
When considering the EarPods for what they are — free bundled accessories — you could even describe sound quality as good. This is relative of course, and doesn’t hold up so well when you consider that Apple sells replacements for $29 (more on this later).
Comfort & Design
Apple’s EarPods are designed to sit loosely in your ear, rather than forming a seal for a tighter fit. The smooth plastic design is largely inoffensive — they’re not quite uncomfortable, but if you’re used to sound isolating silicon buds, then they tend to always feel like they don’t quite fit properly. Just like the quality of sound produced, when compared to the pre-2012 disc-shaped design, these represent a massive improvement.
One of the problems presented by the design is that EarPods tend to move around a lot. They’ll slip out of place in your ear, which negatively affects sound quality, and they tend to fall out on a regular basis which means you have to keep putting them back in all the time.
It’s a lot worse if you want to use your EarPods while moving around a lot — running, cycling, and even a brisk walk can cause them to move around. One saving grace of the design is that they don’t get caught on your ear if you yank them out suddenly, which will probably result in a longer life span. The use of anti-tangle rubber is a nice touch, but like every other pair of anti-tangle earphones you’ve ever owned, you’ll still spend time untangling them when you pull them out of your pocket.
Durability & Build Quality
Apple’s old iPod headphones (below) were known for their poor build quality, and EarPods do little to buck the trend. The design still feels flimsy, and the materials very soft. The areas where the cable joins the earbuds, remote, and stereo jack still represent a weak point, and there’s little to stop it from doubling back on itself given a small amount of force. Over time, this sort of wear will result in a loose connection, crackling, and eventually total failure.
In tests, we found the Apple earphones didn't stand up to the Dyson DC 33 challenge. pic.twitter.com/KYDH8KrEaU
— Paul Way (@theresnofinway) July 19, 2016
There’s a lot of flex in the plastic used for the remote control, and once you’ve broken this, there’s little to protect the wire within. It’s hardly surprising then that EarPods have maintained their predecessor’s reputation of dying suddenly. For free, it’s probably to be expected, but for $29 in Apple retail stores, they should be better. At least you get a new pair with every purchase, I suppose?
One way you can mitigate damage is by storing them properly. All EarPods come with a hard case that’s surprisingly robust and should protect your earbuds from damage, provided you remember to use it. We’ve previously written about bad practices to avoid to extend the life of headphones, and much of this advice applies to in-ear models as well.
Should your EarPods break, you may not realize it, but they’re subject to the same warranty conditions as everything else that came in the box (be it an iPhone, iPad, or even your Lightning cable). In the US, this limited warranty extends for one year, and doubles to two years in the EU or Australia. Got AppleCare? You get three years of coverage on your accessories — so use it!
These warranties only cover manufacturer defects, rather than accidental damage, but a Genius bar appointment costs nothing, and fraying chargers are often replaced by staff free of charge. You might be surprised as to what Apple considers a manufacturer defect.
Value for Money?
For free, Apple’s EarPods represent excellent value for money. When you take their resale value into account, the opposite is true. I don’t think I’d ever recommend anyone go out and purchase a new pair of Apple EarPods to replace a pair that have broken (don’t forget your warranty either).
If you want a cheap pair of headphones and you’re not bothered about the best sound quality, or you tend to break your earphones all the time and thus can’t afford to spend very much money on them, you can spend less and get more for your money. You could get earphones that are cheap but use passive noise isolation (a tight silicon rubber fit in your ear) which won’t let as much ambient sound in or wash out the mid-range to the same degree.
A few years ago, I tested a cheap pair of earphones designed by teenagers that cost less, sound better, are made of metal, and still work (I just can’t find them, or else I’d never have turned to EarPods in the first place). I’d recommend having a read of The Wirecutter’s best budget earphone guide, which examines a large number of budget options to find those that demonstrate the best sound and best value for money, including an old-school non-isolating pair too.
Current recommendations include the Brainwavz Delta and Panasonic ErgoFit (around $10), but the whole list is worth a look. If you want to spend a little more, head to a local headphone shop (if you can find one) and speak to the staff. They’ll ask you what you want them for, what your budget is, what sort of music you listen to, and even offer you a few different pairs to try.
Not Bad for Free
EarPods sound okay, but they won’t knock your socks off. They’re distinctly inoffensive, while at the same time sounding overpriced at $29. Apple’s design is flawed in terms of ambient noise and sound leakage, and build quality still leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately there are plenty of cheaper alternatives available if you need budget earphones.
In short, my life is just an epic story of gaining and losing Apple earphones.
— Will Skalmoski (@WillySkal) August 2, 2016
The one saving grace is that they’re free and make a great backup pair when push comes to shove. If you rarely use earphones, don’t listen to music on the go, or just need a fuss-free handsfree solution for taking phone calls, they’ll do the job. And to be fair, there are a few other nifty things your Apple EarPods can do.